Taklamakan - Desert With No Ocean Underground


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Antoaneta Bezlova
Nov 8, 2006

BEIJING, Nov 8 (IPS) - When the city of Korla rose from the Taklamakan desert in mid-1950s, it was marvelled as a triumph of human willpower over adverse nature. Thousands of soldiers dispatched by the Chinese communist party put this place on the map in China's far west Xinjiang, by digging 600 km of channels to coax underground water to large collective farms.

Half-a century later, Korla has to defend every bit of its existence in the desert by erecting sentries of trees against the encroaching sands. It has to fight for every drop of water by using sophisticated water conservation technology imported from Israel.

While the gleaming modern centre of today's Korla is a far cry from the cluster of shacks this place used to be in the 1950s, the enormous efforts to build and maintain it have exhausted local ecology to a degree rendering people question the wisdom of creating it in the first place.

"If it wasn't for the oil in the desert this place wouldn't have survived," says Tian Yugang who works on the afforestation of the city.

Like many other settlers in Korla Tian comes from inland China. His parents -- members of communist China's paramilitary corps, or Bing Tuan, were sent to isolated Xinjiang by chairman Mao Zedong in the 1950s to open up new land and build new cities.

It was the Bing Tuans that secured the subjugation of this Muslim-populated territory for the rule of distant communist rulers in Beijing. It was the Bign Tuans too that set into motion the backbreaking work of introducing farming in this arid land where there is insufficient water.

The economic magnet of this rugged place though is the abundance of oil extracted in the Taklamakan desert, which has kept the Han Chinese coming to Korla since the oil discovery in the late 1950s.

Korla now hosts the headquarters of Tarim Oilfield Co, a unit of the state oil giant, PetroChina, and receives throngs of visitors from foreign firms interested in the oil and gas reserves in China's western deserts.

With its Karaoke bars, oversized department stores and a neon-lit promenade along the man-made Peacock river, the city strives to be a mini-replica of booming metropolises of the east coast like Shanghai.

Yet there is one flaw that has escaped local officials' drive for perfection. Being only 70 km from the desert, the city is plagued by fierce desert storms that ravage the fragile vegetation and blanket the skies for days on in spring.

It rains so little that the locals remember every day of the year when it happened. The drought sucks all the moisture from the soil, making it an easy prey for the storms. Encircled by dry mountains from all sides, Korla gets whipped by sand that is picked up by the wind and deposited on every visible surface. It happens on some 40 days every year.

So desperate were local officials to tame the storms that in mid-1990s they embarked on a scheme to level off some of the surrounding hills by blowing them up.

"We thought this would decrease the sand carried by the wind and would help us irrigate the land better," recalls Zhang Yizhi, vice-director of Korla's Afforestation Bureau.

At the time Beijing had declared a nationwide battle on encroaching deserts by erecting an enormous "green wall" in the areas worst hit by desertification. Korla had its share -- some 13,000 hectares of land allocated by the central government, in a massive tree-planting scheme to hold back the deserts.

But while Korla could plant the trees it could not irrigate them properly because of its hilly terrain. Blowing up a few of the hills encircling the city didn't produce the result city leaders had hoped for. It was impossible to alter entirely the vast stretches of rocky outcrops surrounding the place.

The miraculous solution came in the shape of a dripline irrigation technology introduced by the Israeli company Eisenberg Agri Co. Ltd (EAC). It uses a pressurised system of several main pipes and hundreds of drip lines that can carry the water up the hill and deliver it through sprinkles to the roots of every tree.

"The brilliant thing about this technology is that the water pressure and volume are the same on top of the mountain and at the bottom of it," gushes Korla's vice-mayor Qu Sihao. "It really works here because all we have are hills".

While in the past it would take 800 to 1000 cubic metres of water to irrigate one mu (0.067 hectare) of land with planted trees, now the city can save 75 percent of the water. Since introducing the technology in 2001, Korla leaders claim to have successfully planted more than 3,000 hectares with trees.

The resources mobilised to achieve this are mind-boggling. The government is spending 1,167 yuan (148 US dollars) per every mu of newly planted trees along with an annual payment of 184 yuan (23 dollars) for maintaining it.

Mar. 12 has been declared a Tree Planting Day and every year local government leaders join thousands of people who take up shovels in a mass campaign to plant trees.

Zhang, at the local afforestation bureau, believes the strategy is paying off. In the past five years desert storms have decreased by 6 to 7 days and Korla's summer temperature is slightly lower. Yet the place is continuously dry and the tree belt created resembles a small green dent in an ocean of sand.

The gains are tiny compared with the environmental losses during the past five decades of water overuse and excessive farming. Overall, Xinjiang faces an uphill battle in reversing the tide of ecological degradation because its scarce water resources are mostly from glacier mountains and concentrated in two to three months in the summer. More than a quarter of Xinjiang's territory is covered in desert.

This year China claimed a victory in slowing the spread of deserts, saying the rate at which the desert is eating up farm and other land had slowed from 10,400 sq km to about 3,000 sq km a year.

Lester Brown, the president of the United States -based Earth Policy Institute, however believes China is losing the centuries-old war against the deserts.

"A huge dust bowl is developing in western China," he says, "perhaps the world's largest conversion of productive land into desert we have witnessed so far".

(*The Asia Water Wire, coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacific, is a series of features around water and development in the region.) (FIN/2006)

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